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UM's Carlson reaches U.S. Amateur round of 32

Matt Charboneau
The Detroit News
Nick Carlson

Bloomfield Township — When Nick Carlson faced the biggest shot of his round on Wednesday, it didn’t help that the University of Michigan golfer stands a slight 5 foot, 5 inches.

It was the opening round of match play at the U.S. Amateur, and Carlson was in the bunker at the 17th hole on the South Course at Oakland Hills Country Club. The par-3 was playing about 240 yards, and the bunker Carlson ended up in just short of the green on the right side was deep.

Really deep.

In fact, Carlson couldn’t see the pin.

“I couldn’t see anything,” Carlson said. “Even when I jumped I couldn’t even see it. That doesn’t help that I’m 5-5, but it is what it is.”

What it turned out to be was Carlson’s chance to close out his match with University of Oregon golfer Zach Foushee. So, without the pin in sight, Carlson knocked the ball to about 5 feet from the hole and made his par putt to win the hole.

The gallery of nearly 100 that followed the 19-year-old from Hamilton, Mich., erupted and a yell of “Go Blue” was heard as Carlson beat Foushee, 2 and 1.

“It’s not too often you hit a 40-yard bunker shot to 5 feet,” Carlson said of what he called his best shot of the round. “To close out a match that was pretty special.”

Carlson, who is entering his sophomore year at Michigan, advances to the round of 32 on Thursday, when he will take on England’s Scott Gregory, a 7 and 5 winner over Raymond Knoll of Naperville, Ill.

“Match play is a totally different animal than stroke play and I thought Nick did a really good job of playing the course instead of playing his opponent,” Michigan golf coach Chris Witten said. “Both guys played really well. Sometimes in match play the score of the match looks close but guys are a little rough with their games, and I thought today both guys hit a ton of good shots. It was a lot of fun to watch.”

Carlson will need plenty of good shots moving forward. Not only did Gregory cruise to victory in his first match, he’s also ranked the No. 6 amateur in the world. That leaves quite a gap with Carlson, who checks in at No. 1,981.

However, Carlson’s focus on Wednesday was playing Oakland Hills and not the opponent. He intends to do the same thing against Gregory.

“I’m playing the golf course, I’m hitting the putts,” Carlson said. “Whatever happens, happens, whether I lose by 10 or win by 10. I’m just gonna go out and have some fun.”

He had plenty of fun on Wednesday, opening up a 2-up lead through three holes thanks to an eagle at the par-5 second hole followed by a birdie at the par-4 third. But Foushee chipped away, squaring the match through seven holes.

It stayed that way until Carlson called on his short game at No. 12. After his approach to the par-5 leaked right near the 16th tee, Carlson knocked his chip to about 10 feet away, just a foot inside Foushee. Carlson made his putt while Foushee missed.

“I ended up having a decent lie over in the rough and luckily I had 50 yards of green almost to work with,” Carlson said. “Hit my shot and told my caddie in the air that is gonna be pretty good. It hit kind of soft like I didn’t think and it rolled up the hill for a 10-footer. He was a foot behind me so luckily I got to see his and what it did and go from there.”

Foushee answered with a birdie at the par-3 13th hole, but Carlson responded with two straight birdies at Nos. 14 and 15, rolling in clutch putts to take a 2-up lead. Carlson looked on his way to closing out the match on No. 16, but Foushee recovered from a wayward tee shot and managed a par from the sand to extend the match.

However, Carlson put him away with his blast from the bunker on No. 17. It was the culmination of an aggressive round that was aided by some solid putting.

“Last night I worked on my putting for a little bit and I got a little confidence,” Carlson said. “I love the way these greens roll and to see them cut like they were today was awesome. I didn’t try to make the eagle (at No. 2). I was just trying to hit a good putt and if it went in, it went in. Then some of the other putts I had out there were just solid putts. I hit my lines and they went in, so it was pretty cool.”

'Dream week'

It’s been a pretty good couple of weeks for Garrett Rank, and advancing to the round of 32 at the U.S. Amateur is just one of the reasons.

The native of Elmira, Ontario, accomplished that last feat on Wednesday on the South Course at Oakland Hills Country Club by beating Benjamin Griffin, 1-up. It’s the fifth time the 28-year old has played in the U.S. Amateur and he’s hoping to advance past the round of 32 for the first time.

If he doesn’t, however, it’s probably not going to bother Rank too much. After all, he made the cut a few weeks ago at the RBC Canadian Open, the same week he found out he would be a full-time NHL referee this season.

“I signed a full-time NHL contract to work 73 games, so I’m looking forward to that,” Rank said after the round. “It was a good week. I made the cut on the PGA Tour and signed a full-time NHL contract, so dream week for me.”

He’s trying to add some icing to a pretty impressive run this week at Oakland Hills. The former college hockey player who took to golf after testicular cancer forced him to leave the ice back in 2011 has been working hard on his game, something that is tough in the winter.

Rank has worked in the Ontario Hockey League and the American Hockey League while also working some NHL games last season. Refereeing is his No. 1 priority, but he does what he can to keep his golf game sharp.

“I try and stay in shape, and mentally I think it’s good to get away from the game for a little bit during the offseason,” said Rank, the runner-up at the 2012 U.S. Mid-Amateur. “But I’d be lying if I didn’t tell you I played every day for the last three months. I feel confident with my game right now, and I’m just trying to keep it sharp in the wintertime.”

Rank won’t put a lot pressure on himself moving forward. He plays Denver’s Kyler Dunkle in the next round, but before he focused on that match, there was time to relax by the pool and maybe eat some Chipotle, he said.

He believes he’s learned from his past appearances at the U.S. Amateur and won’t sweat the ups and downs that come on the course. If he can do that, he could turn a nice couple of weeks into one heck of a summer with a major championship.

“That wouldn’t suck,” he said. “It would be really cool.”